This week, the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO) annual meeting wrapped up in Chicago. Thousands of researchers presented studies, but none more significant than those for patients with advanced melanoma.
In one study, for the first time in 30 years, cancer researchers have been able to show an overall survival benefit in a Phase III trial for metastatic melanoma.
It found that patients treated with ipilimumab had improved median overall survival compared to patients treated with the control arm. As Dr. Vernon Sondak of the Moffitt Cancer Center stated, there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel for patients with metastatic melanoma.
This is a major advance in a field that has not had a new drug approved in more than 12 years. Melanoma researchers emphasized the importance of “combination” therapy for treating advanced melanoma to further improve the impact of ipilimumab.
Other research presented at ASCO showed promising results with drugs to target BRAF mutations in melanoma patients whose tumors have a mutation in BRAF.
Yet, conducting studies of drugs in combination is challenging, particularly in melanoma. Because very few drugs have been approved for melanoma, combination therapy involves putting together drugs that are still in clinical trials, including those held by different companies.
To help overcome these challenges, the Melanoma Research Foundation has recently formed collaboration among top melanoma experts (clinicians and scientists), which will look to partner with pharmaceutical companies and government to pool knowledge, resources and efforts to generate new breakthroughs in treatment. MRF’s Breakthrough Consortium is committed to accelerate the discovery of effective melanoma treatments through coordinated development of new combinations.
This initiative is a new model in melanoma that breaks down traditional barriers and fosters collaboration between industry, government and the research community. Studies conducted through the consortium will enable researchers to combine multiple investigative drugs, or combine an investigative drug with an approved drug.
This process bypasses the long pause of waiting for investigational drugs to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before we explore whether certain combinations might be effective for patients.
This week, consortium researchers met to discuss potential trials that would combine investigational therapies from several pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies. Through these discussions, they identified promising areas for collaboration.
Members of the consortium also reported on encouraging discussions with several drug companies. These companies recognize the urgent need for more treatment options for people with advanced disease.
The Breakthrough Consortium is charting a new path for melanoma research for patients as well. For example, its researchers will focus on understanding each patient’s disease through tissue analysis to enroll them in a clinical trial that promises them the most success.
Nearly 69,000 Americans were diagnosed with the disease in 2009, resulting in 8,650 deaths or one person every hour. The melanoma foundation is convinced that bringing together a consortium of researchers and securing the cooperation of key pharmaceutical companies will take years off the drug-development process and produce results that can help melanoma patients sooner, rather than later.
The Breakthrough Consortium is pleased to serve as a platform to hasten research through this unconventional collaboration. Clinical trials are set to begin in 2010.
Lynn Schuchter, M.D., is the chief of hematology/oncology at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center, co-chair of the Melanoma Research Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board and a board member of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.